Poetry that Shaped America

As part of a multiyear “Celebration of the Book,” on Monday the Library of Congress launched the exhibit “Books That Shaped America.” The centerpiece of the exhibit is an initial display of 88 books deemed by the Library to be of cultural significance to America. You can view the list of books here.

The list is not meant to be definitive nor to represent the ‘best’ books published in America, but to serve as a starting point for discussing books that have played an important role in American history and culture. To foster this discussion, the Library of Congress has created an online survey through which you can comment on the initial list and nominate additional books for inclusion.

First editions of Leaves of Grass published during Walt Whitman’s life. From left to right: Brooklyn: 1855; Brooklyn: 1856; Boston: 1860-1861; New York: 1869; Washington: 1871; Camden, New Jersey: 1876; Boston: 1881-1882; Philadelphia: 1888; Philadelphia: 1891-1892

Books from all genres were considered for the initial list, and I am pleased to see that seven poetry books made the cut: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855); Emily Dickinson’s Poems (1890); William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1923); Robert Frost’s New Hampshire (1923); Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues (1925); Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville (1945); and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956).

As for myself, it wasn’t until college that I read a poetry book—as opposed to individual poems—that truly influenced me: Stanley Kunitz’s  Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995). With its many poems celebrating the richness of life while simultaneously confronting the inevitability of aging, loss, and death, Kunitz’s book was the first to truly awaken in me an appreciation for every lived moment. To this day, poems in Passing Through such as “The Wellfleet Whale,” “The Layers,” “The Long Boat,” “The Snakes of September,” and “Touch Me,” remain among those most important to me.

Which books of poetry have shaped your life? And which poetry books that didn’t make the initial list do you think should be included? Feel free to comment on the blog or by completing the survey.


  1. Ed Zahniser
    June 27, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    For poetry I would add E. E. Cummings’ Poems 1923 to 1954, for many years the best collection of Cummings work that opened up poetry to many folk who would not otherwise have tried reading poetry. His exploded typography masks — especially in the final Complete Poems edition — an astounding number of sonnets. But then, he did major in classics at Harvard.

  2. Bill Blake
    June 28, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Wendell Berry’s GIVEN and The Timbered Choir have made a impression on me. The books are overflowing with a stream of nature and spirituality without being preachy or religious. Berry respect for language shiines through each line.

  3. kathleen
    June 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    my life as a poet was shaped by edna st vincent millay and sara teasdale and emily dickenson- then in high school by robinson jeffers- none of which were offered as important by my schools-
    i memorized orcar wilde poems- poems by all of the above women- and maybe they helped me survive the educational system i found myself in-

  4. Marieve
    June 1, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    A word to Kathleen
    June 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    We must be twins — only Frost and Dickinson became monumental, but Edna and Sara were the the private twin stars of my firmament. Parallax is working 8 years, 11 moons, and 29 days later. Thank you for the memory and the external validation.

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